I have been mulling over Matt's question about how to criticize religion and decided I was wrong to distance myself from Ms. Armstrong, especially when I remembered that she'd offered the best summary of I'd ever encountered on how to judge religion. If I'm not as close to her thinking as I might be, it's not because I think she's wrong but because I think I'm not as wise or developed as she is, and so not able to espouse her ideas with the commitment they deserve. I really think her work--especially "A History of God"--should be required reading for anyone struggling with recovery from Mormonism. As evidence, I offer this passage from a paper I delivered on her at the 2005 Sunstone symposium. The paper was entitled "Pain, Sorrow, Suffering, Failure, Despair and Occasional Moments of Transcendence: The Wisdom and Insights of Karen Armstrong." Here's something--as in a long something, as in four single-spaced pages--from the close, in case you're interested.
Note: Although Armstrong has published more than a dozen books--most of which I've read--I cited only five in this presentation. They are, in order of publication, "Through the Narrow Gate," "Beginning the World," "A History of God," "The Battle for God" and "The Spiral Staircase."
In 1981, Armstrong published Through the Narrow Gate. It didn't earn much money, but it did gain her some attention--enough that she was invited to comment on religious topics on television. Eventually she lands a job writing the text for a six-part television documentary on Saint Paul, and it is while doing research for this project that she realizes how profoundly ignorant she is about the origins of Christianity. She comes to the conclusion that it was not Jesus Christ or any of his immediate disciples who were the inventors of Christianity, but Saint Paul--hence the name of the series, The First Christian. She also realizes that she has never thought carefully about Christianity's two "sister religions," as she calls them, Judaism and Islam.
She studies the three monotheistic religions' relationships to each other when asked to write a television series on the Crusades. Calling the story of the Crusades "a hideous chronicle of human suffering, fantacism and cruelty" (258), she notes that studying them has a primary salutary, albeit painful, effect: "it broke [her] heart" (Staircase, 258). This broken heart, is, of course, a necessary spiritual development. As she notes,
All the world faiths put suffering at the top of their agenda, because it is an inescapable fact of human life, and unless you see things as they really are, you cannot live correctly. But even more important, if we deny our own pain, it is all too easy to dismiss the suffering of others. Every single one of the major traditions--Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the monotheisms--teaches a spirituality of empathy, by means of which you relate your own suffering to that of others. (Staircase, 272)
Learning how to cultivate and practice empathy is part of what makes it possible for her to write remarkably sympathetic biographies of Muhammad and the Buddha, activities in which she "had to make a constant, imaginative attempt to enter empathically into the experience of another" (Staircase, 279). Admittedly, this is a difficult thing to do. It takes self-awareness, generosity and discipline to cultivate empathy, and even more hard work to act on it rather than resorting to anger and retaliation when someone attacks us or something we love. It is also necessary if we want to make any progress as spiritual beings, and much of religion has been designed to help us do that hard work. If religion fails in that primary task, it fails supremely and definitively. One of final insights offered in The Spiral Staircase is the absolute necessity of empathy as a criterion in judging the value of religion: Armstrong states,